USC Football: Will Devon Kennard Switch to Defensive End, SAM or Elephant?

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USC Football: Will Devon Kennard Switch to Defensive End, SAM or Elephant?
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
USC's Devon Kennard chasing Arizona State QB Brock Osweiler

On May 19 Devon Kennard tweeted: “Next time I touch the field it looks like I'm going to be coming off the edge again... Uhhh ooooo.”

But, what does this mean?

Kennard was USC’s starting middle linebacker last season and was expected to continue at MIKE his junior year this season. However, he missed spring practice while recovering from hip surgery as did Chris Galippo (back) and Shane Horton (hip), both possible starters at linebacker.

USC head coach Lane Kiffin commented that the linebackers were the most improved group in spring practice highlighted by Hayes Pullard, Dion Bailey and Marquis Simmons as reported by Jordon Moore of USCTrojans.com.

The USC defense played poorly last season, including the linebackers, although it improved toward the end of the year. The Trojans finished the year ranked 84th in total defense and 109 in pass defense.

Although assistant head coach Monte Kiffin seemed to do well in the transition from the NFL to college football at the Tennessee Volunteers in 2009, there were many issues with the USC defense in 2010.

This may have been due to the level of development of the players, understanding their strengths and weaknesses and recognizing that the college game is played more in space.  The speed of Oregon’s (and other teams) no huddle spread offense requires faster defensive ends and a good two-deep to keep players fresh.

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
USC Assistant Head Coach Monte Kiffin and Head Coach Lane Kiffin talking over game plans

The move of Dion Bailey in spring practice from defensive back to linebacker is a sign that Monte Kiffin is flexible and starting to adjust the Trojan defense and players based on the lessons learned last year.

Kennard was a Rivals 5-star weakside defensive end recruit out of high school. 

In his true freshman year, he began as backup defensive end but y midseason was seeing key action primarily in pass rushing situations. He then was moved to strongside linebacker (SAM).  He appeared in 12 games, starting in five, and had 34 tackles including two for losses, three deflections, one fumble recovery and one forced fumble. He made the 2009 Pac-10 All-Freshman first teams by ESPN and Sporting News.

Kennard’s sophomore season included starting the first eight games as middle linebacker and a frequently used backup the rest of the season. He had 72 tackles, including seven for losses (two sacks), plus one interception and one deflection. He battled through injuries in the second half of the season and he sometimes seemed lost in Monte Kiffin’s complicated defense.

The Trojan coaching staff has not indicated any possibility that Kennard will change from starting middle linebacker as indicated on the post-spring depth chart.

So, here is an explanation of Kennard's tweet.

Prior to playing MIKE he played defensive end and SAM.  Kennard’s tweet said he “… would be coming off the edge again …” That is what he did in these two prior positions. He could also be used in an Elephant (hybrid DE/OLB) role like Brian Cushing and Clay Matthews.

Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images
USC's Brian Cushing and Clay Matthews tackling Stanford's Toby Gephardt

That would seem to make more sense than playing only DE or SAM. He could be a stand-up DE on nickel packages and take on the SAM role in the base defense.

The nickel defense front seven might include Kennard (DE), Armond Armstead/George Uko (DT), Christian Tupou/ DaJohn Harris (NT), and Nick Perry (DE) on the line, and Chris Galippo/Lamar Dawson (MIKE), Shane Horton/Hayes Pullard (WILL) and Dion Bailey/Marquis Simmons (SAM) at linebacker. 

The base defense could be Wes Horton/Kevin Greene (DE), Armstead/Uko (DT), Tupou/Harris (NT), and Perry (DE) on the line and Kennard (SAM), Galippo/Dawson (MIKE) and Horton/Pullard (WILL) at linebacker.

USC has many returning players who missed spring practice due to injuries and 23 incoming recruits.  There are lots of starting positions that have to be determined in fall practice.  It is going to be a very busy time.

Monte Kiffin knows his players and their capabilities this season and you can bet that the USC defense will be much improved in 2011.

Moving Devon Kennard to an Elephant role might be an important step in that direction.

P.S. See this exchange of tweets on May 30 between Devon Kennard and Joshua Heilman: Devon Kennard "Ill keep that in mind" RT "Play DE, it will save you four or five rounds in the draft."  Tweet on June 2:  Devon Kennard " I just did like 100 interviews! I guess I will give my followers the sneak before the media gets it out! I will be playing DE next season." On June 3, Michael Lev of the Orange County Registers summarizes his discussion with Kennard and the Elephant position.

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